When a person shows up on the doorstep of a Sephardic home, they can be sure of one thing: if they cross the threshold, they will be made to eat. In our concept of hospitality is the notion that you feed everyone who comes to your home – even the unexpected visitor – and you get right to it. Dragging your heels to put out a snack is very bad form, as is a visitor’s refusing food when it’s offered. This means chances are you can’t pop over to a Sephardic home for just five minutes, but that’s soon forgiven. In my parents’ home, pretty much everyone who showed up at our door was greeted warmly and welcomed this way, which frankly was really nice.
The idea is that everyone who enters your home is a guest. You may be happier to see some more than others, but you welcome them all with something edible – a beverage alone just doesn’t cut it – and let each figure out when it’s time to leave. It’s not always practical, but it’s a nice philosophy. And you can certainly beg off if you’re really heading out, or if the stranger at the door has a vibe like Charles Manson. We’re hospitable, but we’re not nuts.
My mother has always been a champion Sephardic hostess. As far back as I can remember, when someone dropped by unexpectedly, within a minute or two she had a kettle on the stove and good food on the table. Sweet or savory, whatever was on hand; there might be pastry, cookies, cake, fruit, biscuits, cheese, olives. She didn’t ask if you were hungry; she took charge, setting the table with style and a generous hand while good conversation got underway. Impromptu visits in our home took place around the dining room table.
What a lovely custom. It’s not about showing off your dishes or how well you cook or stock your pantry; without the distraction of hunger, it’s just easier to focus on conversation. When a Sephardi offers you a snack, it’s to say “I’m listening.”